Doon School at 75: elite and proud of it!

(This is a longer version of an interview with Doon
School Headmaster Dr Peter McLaughlin; the shorter version was published in DNA edition dated June 5, 2010. I am posting the full-text version in the context of the School’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee.)

If India’s power and business elite have one thing in common, it’s that many of them have been to The Doon School, Indian’s first public school modelled on the finest British educational institutions. But the ‘elitist’ tag, intended as criticism in some quarters, doesn’t faze its Headmaster, Dr Peter McLaughlin, overmuch. In an interview to DNA’s Venky Vembu at Hong Kong’s stately Foreign Correspondents’ Club, another British legacy, McLaughlin – who grew up in Africa, specialised in military and defence history and served as teacher, housemaster and headmaster in a number of British public and international schools, before coming to Dehra Dun – surveys the Indian education landscape, muses on the strengths and weakness of Indian rote learning, and charts out Doon’s roadmap as it completes 75 years as an “elite” education service provider. Excerpts:

As an educationist, what are your thoughts on the Right to Education (RTE) Act that came into force recently?


I think it’s long overdue; it should have been enacted on the first day of independence. The intention is sound: India in the 21st century cannot continue to be riven by caste, creed and social divisions which run very deep, and the legislation attempts to address that. As India emerges as a global power, the lack of access to education by the poorer sections or those who have been discriminated against is holding the country back. Part of the heartbreak for Indians is: ‘How on earth do we overcome this huge problem?’ It’s only going to come through radical reform, emanating from the Centre, with energy and determination on the part of the Central government. The problem has not gone away of its own volition simply because India had freed itself from British rule.

So, my standpoint – as an educator and as a human being – is that this is needed to take primary education in India forward. Quite how it’s going to play out in the States when the law is turned into regulation, we don’t know.

Are you bothered by the provision in the Act that private schools should set aside 25% of their seats for children from weaker sections?


Any piece of policy that tries to bring about a re-engineering of the social structure is bound to be flawed. It’s very tempting for the government to use the private sector to advance its agenda. I don’t know if it’s ethically right, and I think it will throw up a huge number of problems.   

The moot question is: does the RTE apply to the Doon School? No one will tell us, nor have we sought clarification. We start only in Class 7; we don’t have Year 1 entrance.  I cannot speak for the private sector as a whole because our school is very different.

But the Doon School has always, through its scholarship and bursary program, made itself accessible to as wide a demographic as possible. In that sense, for us, it’s not daunting. But there would be very deep implications for the school if it were to go ahead. We’re having an internal debate on whether, in keeping with the Doon School’s commitment to service, we should become a leader in embracing the RTE rather than respond in the way that most private schools in India have – that this may bring civilization as they know it to an end.

Where do you stand on this debate over a more inclusive campus?

I’ve always been the head of schools that have had very extensive scholarship and bursary programs. I’ve never viewed children from lower income backgrounds or disadvantaged backgrounds coming into a school as a threat to the school’s social cache. The schools I’ve headed felt it was part of their charitable mission to embrace people from a diversity of backgrounds, including lower-income groups. So, my standpoint is that this is needed to take primary education in India forward.

So, what are your apprehensions about this quota provision?

My sole apprehension is not financial: the Doon School would be able to mobilise enough resources to take this on board. It’s actually the social fit of the child with the other students.  There’s a danger that these children will become isolated within the community. And it’s not what about happens in the classroom because the Doon School is committed to the absolute equality of all boys, and we have lots of very strange rules: for instance, no one is allowed to have any money at all. I have no idea what income backgrounds our boys come from: I don’t take any statistics to find out because I’m not interested in that. I am interested in the students and their parents, but not in how much money they have.

From that point of view, the school would do everything in its powers to make these boys comfortable, as it’s been doing for over 75 years. But the point is: will they feel comfortable? It’s also about what you do in the holidays. If you’ve got a boy who’s going back to a village, while other boys are going back to Delhi or Switzerland or Canada, they will feel the pressure, not us.

But, as I said, we still don’t know whether or not the law applies to us. What we do know is that we already have a quarter of our boys on major scholarships.

But these would be boys with the same social profile as others…


Boys receiving scholarships tend to come from the service sector: armed forces, IAS, small businesses, doctors who are not in private sector but working for NGOs. What we do not have are students from very, very poor background.

And that might change with the RTE?


If you look at the legislation, the idea is that we should open it up without any screening for background, income or academic ability. The Doon School would then probably have 7 or 8 million applicants! How on earth are we going to screen those?

Premier foreign universities seem reluctant to set up campuses in India. Is India not a lucrative education market?


Many people around the world see India as a vast, unexploited market – and I use the word ‘unexploited’ advisedly. I think a lot of people are slabbering and rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect. As the demographics of the world change, we’re seeing large numbers of very talented young people coming from India into their institutions, or alternatively, franchises coming into India.

I don’t have a problem with any foreign institution that wants to come to India and serve India. But one of the problems with British schools coming into India is that they want to subsidise British students. It’s a neo-colonial enterprise to finance their operations in the UK.

Richard Cairns, the Headmaster of Brighton College, which is looking to set up schools in India and elsewhere in Asia, has said quite clearly that they are setting them up to finance their UK operations and subsidise British students. I have a problem with that.

But the obstacles to coming here are the regulations, the tax regime and the requirements of the foreign education providers legislation. The Oxfords, the Cambridges, the Harvards, the Yales, are highly unlikely to set up a straightforward franchise in India for these reasons.

Is dilution of academic standards a concern?

With the elite universities and schools, yes. Eton has said it will never franchise itself. We deal with the same question ourselves at Doon School: will we lose our uniqueness if we have a Doon School in Hyderabad? There have been some discussions on that. Some people said, ‘Why don’t you set up a Doon School South or a Doon School for Girls or a Doon School University, extending the franchise upwards into the tertiary education sector?’ But at this stage, we’re so absorbed in the next stages of our own development that that’s not a major part of our thinking.

What’s good and what’s bad about the Indian education system? To what extent is it preparing youngsters in India for the careers of the future?


What’s good is that it’s a byproduct of rote learning. What’s been lost in the West is the value of mastering a body of knowledge. The idea is that all knowledge is available through a search engine, therefore you don’t need to master a book or a body of knowledge. But genuine creativity and originality comes from internalising a body of knowledge and having it whizzing around in your head. India shouldn’t lose that strength; any education reform should maintain that rigour. But the cost of an overemphasis on that has been to stifle creativity and originality.

Indian students go to schools or universities abroad and flourish, so there’s something in the DNA of Indian students that’s very adaptable. I just don’t think they’re being served well in the core competencies of the 21st century by enough schools. The challenges of the 21st century are so enormous we’re going to need a critical mass of thinkers rather than doers.

Public schools in India, including Doon, are seen as ‘elitist’. Are you?

Apart from a few Aboriginal cultures, every human society since about 10,000 years ago has been ruled by an ‘elite’, however you may define that. The question is: what sort of an elite do you want your country or your organisation to be run by in the 21st century? Do you want it to be a power-crazed corrupt elite that ignores the citizenry? Or do you want it to be an open elite that is meritocratic and believes in good governance? I don’t apologise for the Doon School being an elite institution. Interestingly, the very people who criticise schools in India for being elite want to send their children to elite universities in India or abroad! So, no, I don’t have any difficulty with that tag being put upon me.

You wear it as a badge of honour?

Yes, I do! (Laughs) As Arthur Foot, Doon’s first Headmaster said, our boys will join an aristocracy, but it’s an aristocracy of service, not one of wealth, privilege or position. It will be an unselfish aristocracy. And of course, aristocracy simply means ‘rule by the best’: it doesn’t mean rule by the most powerful, the best connected or the wealthiest.  And we live that out. I’d like to think that we produce the sorts of boys who will go on to be wise, compassionate leaders of organisations or hopefully of this country. Elite institutions have a great responsibility, given that people in them will go on to run the country or organisations.

I hold no brief whatsoever for elite schools that are simply social clubs: I think they’re poisonous, cancerous, so I can see why people attack them. But The Doon School isn’t in that club.

Has the profile of the average Doon School boy changed over time?


The demographics haven’t changed dramatically despite what people say. We did a study from the early 1960s. We found that 60-70% of our intake then was from the non-metros. Even now, the demographic is 60-70% is from non-metros. The difference is that today, a place like Noida or Gurgaon would be counted as a metro; in the olden days, that wouldn’t have been the case. Similarly, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata regions have all vastly expanded. But we continue to get 65-70% of our children from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

What about the background of the parents sending the kids? Prior to 1996, we had half of our children coming from families with salaried background; 35% came from self-employed backgrounds and small businesses; 14% from professional backgrounds: chartered accountants, lawyers, engineers; 1% were politicians’ kids.

Post-1996, 50% of the kids come from the self-employed background. 35% from salaried; 14% are still professionals; and 1% continue to be politicians’ kids.

This difference since 1996 had probably to do with the fact that a huge shift was happening in our registration process. There were a large number of people applying to get in, and the whole registration process is non-refundable. Salaried people felt they couldn’t afford it. That’s when the scholarships and the bursary schemes really came into major play.

Does the proliferation of high-end schools in the Indian metros challenge Doon School’s standing?


It’s bound to – and it has. The educational landscape in India has changed dramatically in the last decade. If you look back to the 1950s and 1960s, there were not that many rival schools around, and so it was easier for the Doon School to stand out because the surrounding terrain was somewhat flatter than it is now. Now the marketplace isn’t exactly crowded with top-quality schools, but there has been a rapid development of schools that can offer an excellent academic education in the big metros. Whether they offer the other things that a top residential school can offer is a matter for debate.

Has it changed the way you do things at Doon School?


The school has placed a much greater emphasis on academics than it has in the past. This year, we’ve just had the best academic results the school’s had in its history. The average percentages each year have jumped by about 15% over the last decade. So the school realises it must pay more attention to that. I believe you don’t have to trade off academic excellence for music, drama, debating, and the other things we do. The calibre of our boys is such that they can do both.

Are you under pressure from parents to raise academic standards?

College placements and university placements – whether in India or abroad – are becoming a benchmark for judging the success of a school. That’s been there for some time. But it’s really sharpening as a factor in parental choice and parental perception of how good a school is.

I think the school does have a job ahead of it in terms of making sure the parents who come to us understand the nature of the education we offer. Yes, we offer excellent academics, but we also offer a lot of other things. What we cannot do is to say: ‘You can give up everything that makes the Doon School what it is – and focus on grades.’ We’ll never be about that. We’d rather take the signboard down and turn it into a luxury compound than compromise on that!

From the debates going on at the Doon School, there appears to be enormous anxiety that your boys are turning increasingly to corporate careers – and not enough in public administration. Are you concerned about that?

As Headmaster, I am bothered about that. The Doon School was set up to produce boys who would serve a free and democratic India. The idea was that they would help to create a nation and help it build and consolidate the nation. And Doon School boys played that role: many of them became Army officers, they went into the IAS, some are in the foreign service. But the numbers going into those services have declined. I think the Doon School should play a part in defending the motherland, and governing the motherland – not just through the political process, but also the civil service.

One of the boys wrote an interesting article noting that as India’s economy globalises, you can actually serve India in the corporate sector. There’s a job to be done to build India’s economic position in the world, to build the economy at home as a platform for reaching out to the world. So we shouldn’t see ‘service to India’ in a narrow way.

That gave me pause, because I’m on a one-man mission to try to get more of our boys join the armed forces, to join the IAS, the foreign service. We sleep easy in our beds at night because people have died in wars to create and preserve the nation. I just feel that an institution such as the Doon School should in the 21st century have army officers who have been through the School. Eton does; Westminster does. The Doon School has the IMA right at its doorstep, and yet it is underrepresented in the armed services.  It’s not something you can force: but, through the values the school espouses and the message it sends out, you can encourage people to consider serving their country.

Doon School pioneered the programme of incorporating social and community service in a school setting. In a recent edition of The Doon School Weekly, one of your students suggested that instead of sending students abroad for social work, the school should take up more such work in India. What are your thoughts on this?


I think the point is well made, even though it’s slightly inaccurate. We are involved in projects in our community.

But the bigger point here, which I support, is that social service is in danger around the world of becoming a photo opportunity for wealthy children. Poverty is seen as something picturesque, and you’re photographed for your Powerpoint display for the marketing department back at school. Social service is becoming a marketing tool and a photo opportunity.

The Doon School has always taken social service very seriously. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve instituted a review of social service because there’s what I call Category 1 social service – which is rolling up your sleeves and making bricks with your hands and getting to know the villagers – and there’s other activities.

One of the problems that the Doon School faced is that the Council for our examinations defined Socially Useful and Productive Work (SUPW) as embracing all sorts of other activities, which I view as hobbies and spare-time activities rather than social service. For instance, you can sign off your social service commitments for the Council examinations by running an art activity where you help younger boys with their artwork. To me, that’s not the same as helping villagers; it doesn’t expose our boys to their social duty. I’m pulling all of those sorts of activities and saying social service at the Doon School means getting into the dirt and among the people.

Having said all that, however, as India globalises, it is important that people from India are seen helping on international projects as well. We can do both. In any case, only a tiny minority of our boys go on such international programs.

How much of what you do at Doon School is shaped by your experience as an educationist in Africa and Britain?

I’ve always been in schools that have been charitable foundations, where the main purpose of the school has been to educate young people, not to generate a profit for an owner or shareholders. When you are a charity, you do tend to focus on service aspects. The school is not simply about equipping students with grades to get on to the next stage of their lives. It’s about equipping them with a worldview. I’ve been the head of schools with religious foundations, with a foundation of religious beliefs that have helped to shape the morals and values of the students.

At the Doon School, we have prayer meetings in the assembly, and we live out our values. You don’t need prayer books and you don’t need to be on your knees, praying or sacrificing in some other way. You can live out a meaningful life and a values-based education in other ways. Which is why I’m very keen to make sure the service we do is genuine – because whichever religious system you look at, it encourages you to live out the message, not just spout the message.

You’re a scholar in Modern History. Do you find that humanities stream is underappreciated in Indian schools?

Yes, and I also find it bothersome that science is being squeezed as well, as people move more into commerce, accounts and economics space as well. People come to the humanities in roundabout ways: they train as economists or accountants but then defect from there and become poets and artists, and I think that’s regrettable.

I wish more people would design careers based on the humanities rather than believing that the only route forward is through either the science complex or the business complex. But this is a phenomenon that afflicts other societies as well. In Egypt, some parents say: ‘We don’t care what he does with his life, as long as he does his engineering degree first!’ It’s considered a basic qualification for a man to have.

It’s a question of educating parents and students that you can actually make a decent living and live a meaningful and valuable life through the humanities. We say to parents: ‘Love your child, not their academic results or their future prospects.’

In the Plantinum Jubilee of the Doon School’s founding, are you redrawing your template?


Over the last couple of years, there’s been a task force looking at the future roadmap for the school: what should the mission of the Doon School in the 21st century be? We’re keen to have DS 75 (as the Platinum Jubilee in October is known) as a platform to launch the next 75 years of the school. We want to reinvigorate its mission, rededicate it to its core values, and energise it for the next three or four decades.

We still want to focus on serving India; we don’t want to become an international school. Our student body will be Indian, and non-resident Indians. We’re not saying foreigners are not welcome, but we will not go out and recruit foreign students because they can pay in foreign currency. Similarly, we’re not going co-ed; we will remain a single-sex school.

What’s wrong with a co-ed campus?

I’ve been the head of a co-ed school; I’ve been the head of a boys-only school; and I’ve been the head of a girls-only school. I’ve seen all three in operations. It’s my belief that teenage boys and girls, upto the age of 16, are better served in a single-sex environment; secondly, the truly great schools of the world have all been and are single-sex. So the roadmap doesn’t take us down the co-ed route.

So, as I said, we still want to serve India, but we’ve broadened the context: we’re looking to serve a meritocratic India in a global context, and we’re widening the horizons. It’s not just creating a nation, building it and consolidating it; it’s about setting it in a global context and serving it and equipping our boys to work anywhere in the world.

Do you have any existential anxieties about the place of public schools in India?

No. The public schools that we’ve been modelled on have been around for five centuries: they’ve survived plagues, famines, great wars and upheavals. The Doon School will still be around in a couple of centuries, provided the earth is.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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2 Responses to Doon School at 75: elite and proud of it!

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